What Do Video Game Remakes Say?

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This is the first essay of a seven-part series on game remakes. Check out the rest of the series here.

It catches my attention that a significant portion of the film-watching audience lets out a groan whenever it hears about a classic movie being remade. A number of people will even act like they’ve swallowed puke after one mentions the very idea of a movie remake. This type of reaction goes beyond personal taste. That so many show obvious repulsion speaks to a culture larger than the individual, a culture that holds particular works of art sacred.

Even though video game fans can be among the most rabid fans of anything on this planet, I don’t see as much dismay among gamers when, say, another Resident Evil remake is announced. It’s of course possible that some of us are so jaded about the greed of the game industry that we can’t be bothered to become disgusted by such an announcement — particularly when the announcement comes from Capcom, a company whose output suggests that it can’t grasp the principle of leaving a good game alone. But given the extremely warm reception to remakes like Resident Evil 2 or Final Fantasy VII Remake, a great many players are not cynical about industry trends, much less critical of the notion of tampering with masterworks.

Game remakes often arrive with similar justification. Game consoles have short lives, meaning that countless people may never experience the original versions of all-time significant releases. Companies, or one of their unpaid shills on social media, can simply remark that the industry is broadening the contemporary audience’s exposure to the classics — and updating that which no longer works, that which has aged too much.

Indeed, if historical appreciation were the point, there would be more emphasis on faithful, painstaking restoration of the games in question. The industry and fans, by and large, share a conviction that modern technology and modern design norms can improve games created with older technology and older design norms. Or if you want to get right to the point: modern games are inherently superior. Now you might say, “That is a revolting thing for the industry to push!” Well, not if you ask those who call these remakes brilliant and needed. There’s a big market for remakes of what we might call canonical games. Compared to film lovers, gamers are strangely willing to accept, or even request, remakes of canonical works. The explanation for these contrasting behaviors lies in a simple cultural difference: the gaming world doesn’t revere or respect that which it claims is great. I think about all the years I listened to people say Final Fantasy VII is the greatest RPG of all time, only to see glowing approval in 2020 for the remake of the supposed existing masterpiece. At best, greatness in games amounts to socially reinforced dogma with an expiration date. At worst, it is forgotten or discarded history.

Perhaps there’s something likable about the lack of sacredness in the gaming world, especially if we argue that art and entertainment shouldn’t be a religion. And yet there’s a rigged nature to the promotion of video game remakes, a religious tautology that tells us that today’s productions are better. How are they better? Ask no more:

Smoother polygons.
Smoother controls.
Smoother translations.
Fully animated figures.
Fully orchestrated music.
Fully tested experiences.
More items.
More songs.
More enemies.
More dialogue.
More minigames.
More mechanics.
More characters.
More voice acting.
More sound effects.
More detailed sprites.
Bigger worlds.
Shorter loading times.
Streamlined menus.
Flexible save systems.
Hints.
Maps.
New visual effects.
New settings.
New story.
New engine.
New levels.
New quests.
New game plus.
Redone.
Revamped.
Reworked.
Revived.
Reimagined.
CONTENT.
BE CONTENT.
BE CONTENT WITH CONTENT.

Try arguing with the bullet points above, you no-good consumer morons! That’s what video game remakes are saying to us.

5 comments

  1. “… gamers are strangely willing to accept, or even request, remakes of canonical works.”

    Not only this but they’re also willing to accept increasingly more instances of unreliable and inconvenient technology. I joked with a co worker who purchased a PS5 that he’d probably have to install a software update right after opening the box, and sure enough he did. This seems counter intuitive and trending in the opposite direction of what should be “better” technology. Say what anybody will about the days of past, but at least I can pop in and play a Mario Kart cartridge without loss of time (and sanity).

  2. “At best, greatness in games amounts to socially reinforced dogma with an expiration date. At worst, it is forgotten or discarded history.”

    You put it into words. That FF VII example is perfect. I just bought a bunch of classic PS1 games on the PS3 store since it’s apparently closing down in a few months, literally erasing history (well, working towards it) since a majority of the titles are hard to find and aren’t available to download on the current gen consoles. The industry absolutely has an archiving/restoration problem, and these constant remakes are just fuel for the fire, arguing that games are only as good as their graphical fidelity and modernism.

    1. I saw your article about this recent occurrence. I wish I could believe that our concerns will be taken seriously by the industry at some point, but it seems unlikely given how the market behaves.

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